‘Packaged’ corpses sow terror in Colombian capital

For several months, bodies wrapped in plastic, some dismembered, have appeared on the streets of Colombia’s capital Bogota — grim proof of an escalating vendetta between rival Venezuelan gangs.

Not even the bombings by late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, or the murderous activities of leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries have generated as much terror as the “packaged” corpses.

Since January, 23 bodies wrapped in plastic have been found abandoned in the city.

These are “violent murders by strangulation, firearms or also with knives and a lot of cruelty,” security minister Anibal Fernandez de Soto told AFP.

The bloody trail has led to eight of the 19 districts in a city that, while beset with organized crime, has been spared the worst of Colombia’s decades of violent conflict.

It is the dismembering that has most shocked residents.

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The Tren de Aragua and Los Maracuchos gangs that were formed in Venezuela, and a third as yet unconfirmed group, are responsible.

“Those 23 terrible cases that we have seen, of murders where the bodies were found in bags, are related to a dispute between criminal groups that are fighting for control of illicit revenues,” said Fernandez de Soto.

And the turf war is “escalating”, according to the man responsible for a special force of 1,300 police and intelligence agents.

– ‘Macabre’ – 

In September, the four “packaged” bodies turned up dismembered for the first time.

Police have confirmed that there are “chopping houses” and torture centers in the capital, similar to those discovered in far-flung areas controled by warring drug trafficking clans.

Fernandez de Soto says the victims are members of the rival gangs and most have criminal records.

“They are intimidating (their rivals) through a macabre modus operandi,” added Fernandez de Soto.

The gangs sell drugs and extort local businesses.

El Tiempo newspaper says the third group is a “Mexican mafia cell” with close ties to the Sinaloa cartel.

Authorities have suspected since last year that the Tren de Aragua gang was present in Bogota, where a quarter of the 1.8 million Venezuelan migrants in the country live.

Before that, they crossed over the border into the North Santander department where they clashed with the National Liberation Army (ELN) Marxist guerrillas.

Initially, the gangs took “control of territory around the border and charged tolls to Venezuelans crossing through the illegal routes,” Jeremy McDermott, co-director at InSight Crime, a center that studies organized crime, told AFP.

They then spread throughout Colombia and from Panama to Chile, charging “protection” fees and exploiting vulnerable migrants.

Their presence has also been reported in Brazil, Ecuador and Peru.

The public safety ombudsman has linked the organization to dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which was the country’s largest rebel group until it signed a 2016 peace deal and formed a political party.

Los Maracuchos are not as high profile as Tren de Aragua, but have been operating in Colombia longer, since 2019.

They keep their “operational center in the prisons” of Venezuela, said Isaac Morales, an investigator for the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (PARES).

Colombian police captured 10 of their members and have asked Interpol for help in finding five more that escaped to Venezuela.

It comes at a time when new left-wing President Gustavo Petro has re-established diplomatic relations with the neighbor, after almost four years of antagonism between his predecessor, the conservative Ivan Duque, and Venezuela’s left-wing populist Nicolas Maduro.

PARES investigations have uncovered at least four illegal Venezuelan structures amongst the 100 crime groups that operate in Bogota.

Mayor Claudia Lopez says the Tren de Aragua leaders, “Nino Guerrero” and “Giovanny”, are running the organization from a prison in Venezuela.